If you need a spring break destination that teens will thank you for, Barcelona Spain — with its own language, cuisine and arts — is a favorite with this crowd and all ages.
Whether your family’s travel choices are guided by shopping, dining, history, the arts, Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or just a general good time, Barcelona fits the bill.
BCN, as it’s fondly known, has a laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle, casual Catalan culture and artistic flair that students respond to immediately. As a business hub in the northeast of Spain with nearly two million inhabitants, the city also presents dozens of unusual opportunities to delve into any interest.
Doing Barcelona & Loving the Sights
For first-time visitors, the heart of the city will be Placa de Catalunya. This huge traffic circle has the main office of Barcelona Tourist Information at Plaza de Catalunya,17, 08007 Barcelona Spain, and many attractions radiate from it. (Note the variety of spellings, because the Catalonians use the Catalan language and the Spanish use traditional Castillian Spanish.)
These attractions include La Rambla (a pedestrian walk leading to the port, thick with shops, street vendors, hotels and markets), Passeig de Gracia (an architecturally rich area for Barcelona’s Modernisme style) and av. Portal del Angel (a narrow lane descending into the labyrinthine Barri Gotic old quarter.)
Taking La Rambla will lead from the heart of the contemporary commercial city to the old port, bisecting several interesting neighborhoods. Endless unexpected attractions include a museum devoted to erotica and near the plaza, the Palau de la Musica, a breathtaking jewel of Catalan art nouveau architecture.
As in all areas of Barcelona (and any city, in fact), keep your eyes on your valuables as pickpockets and backpack thieves are common.
Experiencing Antoni Gaudi & the arts
No one should leave Barcelona without touring a few of the architect Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces. It’s important to go inside and admire the structures inspired by Gaudi’s affection for nature and the curvilinear designs of the art nouveau movement. His engineering ingenuity and enormous imagination will leave children and adults slack-jawed.
The Barcelona Tourist Office can provide a complete list of Gaudi monuments in the city, and the best known are the almost-completed cathedral, Temple de la Sagrada Familia, the private residences of Casa Mila a.k.a. La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and the celebrated public Parc Guell.
Among our family’s favorite museums are the Fundacio Joan Miro highlighting the contemporary art of the Catalan master, Joan Miro, and the stunning Museu Picasso featuring the early works of the Spanish artist who, in his early 20s, moved from Barcelona to Paris to establish a career.
The Miro museum is in Montjuic Park and can be combined with a half day in the park or an outdoor evening performance, as they occur regularly in summer. Be sure to check their website for current events, programs and special exhibitions.
The Picasso Museum is in the heart of the enchanting Barri Gotic, the so-called Gothic Quarter whose labyrinthine lanes shelter the city’s cathedral, palaces of the wealthy, museums, hip boutiques and more. The museum’s collection of Picasso’s early works is so large and rich that our family chose to return to the neighborhood another day and take our time there.
Getting around to see more of Barcelona
Barcelona is a surprisingly large city, so it’s best to organize your sightseeing geographically. The Metro subway system and public buses run frequently and efficiently, but the station locations can be frustrating for visitors. If you only have a few days in BCN, buy a pass for hop-on, hop-off double-decker tour bus and use their maps, discount coupon booklets and audio guides to get around.
Other options for sightseeing include Fat Tire Bike Tours, which runs one or more guided bicycle tours daily from March to December from Placa Sant Jaume; these last up to 4 hours and are suitable for schoolage kids and older. Additionally, Fat Tire rents bikes with locks, bikes with child seats and kid-size bikes by the hour for a self-guided tour. Teens will love a chance to try Barcelona Segway Glides, who take out groups on human-powered transporters for two-hour, two-wheel tours.
Don’t forget, Barcelona with teens in tow means you’ll be spending time doing things that can satisfy anyone’s interests, no matter what they are. Several more of the city’s attractions are profiled in the Barcelona Family Guide.
Shopping las Ramblas for the Fun
During our July visit, Spain was in the midst of its annual sale period, which occurs during the months of January, July and August each year. The government-regulated system ensures that all shops, whether it’s Zara, el Corte Ingles — the revered Spanish department store, Nike or Levi’s, discount their merchandise at this time each year.
But this is a great place to shop at any time of year, for any age family member. Pick up any local magazine and leaf through the ads for a visual treat that rivals Milan and Paris. Barcelona’s outlets of all the major Spanish shops, plus special furniture and design retailers, small artisan boutiques for folk arts, art jewelry and the eclectic shops of Barri Gotic are a major attraction.
Adults will find the best clothing and shoe shops along the Passeig de Gracia just above the Placa de Catalunya, and along Ramblas Catalunya just east of it. Teens and kids will have fun in the Boulevard de Rosa mall off of Paseig de Gracia, along the south side of Placa de Catalunya (where the largest Zara and El Corte Ingles stores are). Don’t forget to pause at Farggi, one of the country’s most popular chain cafes for coffee, teas, bocadillo sandwiches and ice cream concoctions.
If you’re shopping for something special, check with your hotel concierge for suggestions and remember, families living outside the European Union can claim back 21% VAT taxes when departing the country.
Catalan Dining is a Delight
As any Spanish speaker in the family will notice immediately, Catalunya is a province where the Catalan language – not Castillian — is spoken. Along with the language influenced by its proximity to the French frontier, sea trade with Portugal, immigrant labor from Italy and, of course, the Spaniards of Castille and elsewhere in Spain, the cuisine of Catalunya is a delightfully light concoction of seafood, olives, tomatoes, rice dishes like paella, cheeses such as brie, Roquefort and manchego, baguette sandwiches, and the myriad tapas or small appetizer plates served all over the country.
For traditional Spanish fare you can go from a neighborhood tapas bar to a multi-Michelin-starred eatery in minutes, and for these, booking ahead is a must. However, neighborhoods like Born, the hip quarter of Barri Gotic, have dozens of popular eateries if you prefer to just stroll and munch.
Along the tourist routes there are herbal tea shops, busy outdoor cafes serving croissants and many vegetarian restaurants.
Prepare the kids for a brand new dining regimen that’s typical in Spain!
An early breakfast of coffee or warm milk and breads will be the smallest meal
A late lunch (after 2pm) of several courses will be the day’s largest meal
A light dinner (after 9pm) of tapas or a sandwich with a cava sparkling wine will be the nightcap.
Keep snacks handy as it’s common for restaurants to close between lunch and dinner when kids may be starving.
Beaching & Daytrips around Catalunya
Because Barcelona is on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, visiting families may be tempted to allot some time to a beach vacation.
Wrong! As wonderful as this city is, families familiar with Santa Monica or even the Jersey Shore at not going to be satisfied with the pebbly and very crowded Mediterranean beaches.
However, summer can be stifling, so it’s good to be aware that there are several commercial waterparks within a day’s excursion from the city center. Most are open from May to September, for example: Aqua Brava in Roses; Aquadiver in Castell-Platja d’Aro; AquaLeon water park and Zoo in Albinyana; Aquopolis in Pineda (Vila-Seca) and Marineland Catalonia with its dolphin shows (Palafolls).
Another daytrip is to Catalunya en Miniatura about 17 kms away in Torrelles de Llobregat — Spain’s version of Legoland where buildings and monuments in a miniature scale give families an overview of Spain’s cultural patrimony. Kids will enjoy the zip lines and adventure course when they tire of the miniature buildings.
There are many other interesting daytrips in this region. Families without a rental car should contact the tourist office for bus and train schedules as many of the nearby attractions can be reached by public transportation.
Barcelona Trip Planning Details
We had a very good stay at the Acta Atrium Palace (+34 902 222 103; Gran Vía de les Corts Catalanes 656, 08010 Barcelona, Spain), one of several from this brand in Barcelona. It’s conveniently located about a 10-minute walk from Placa de Catalunya in a quieter business neighborhood that is fun to explore. For a very reasonable rate, our spacious and stylish room slept three (one double bed and a daybed) and included a good breakfast served in a lounge off the lobby. (One child’s breakfast is always free if dining with two adults.)
Another very popular choice is the Hotel Inglaterra (Calle Pelai 14, 08001 Barcelona, Spain) where friends stayed with their teen. It has a great location, just off Las Ramblas and Plaza Universitat. The lobby’s marble floors and airy glass walls give the interior and sunny rooms a more contemporary appearance than the pretty stone building’s distinguished facade.
There are better hotel values along the Mediterranean outside the city, a popular option in summer. Be forewarned that the beaches are crowded and not as spectacular as many American beaches, and taking the train back to town for sightseeing can become annoying. Other than that, the seaside hotel’s pools and sun-worshipping space provide a nice alternative to inner-city sightseeing when the often hot and humid weather becomes too much.
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